"A Cake Walk on the Old Plantation." 1901. Stereograph. Courtesy of Early Pictures, private collection.
Book, Music, and Lyrics by:
Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, Khalil Sullivan, and Joshua Williams
Based on the Original Research by:
Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin
African participants stage a choreographic moment from their war dance performance. “War Dance, African Village.” Taken by C. D. Arnold. Reproduced courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC (Digital ID: cph 3a46397. Reproduction Number:
It is against this backdrop of collective trauma and political instability that AT BUFFALO sets its narrative, bringing to life the names recorded in history: W.E.B. DuBois, Leon Czolgosz, and William McKinley--and the names lost in the archive. Audiences will meet Mary Talbert, wealthy leader of the Buffalo black elite, who must come to terms with the racial realities of her hometown. The love story of Tannie and Henrietta, a husband-and-wife black-vaudeville duo, who become at odds over performing “coon” acts while striving for their $5-a-week dream in the Old Plantation. African businessman John Tevi who must outwit the “savage rules” of “Darkest Africa”—the human zoo in which he has become trapped. Jim Parker, an unassuming black waiter, who is thrust into the spotlight when working-class Polish immigrant, Leon Czolgosz, fires his fatal shot at President McKinley. Their lives collide as each confronts the realities of the fair. As America's future hangs in the balance, at stake is nothing less than their survival.
A photograph from W.E.B. Du Bois’s American Negro Exhibit. [African American family posed for portrait seated on lawn]. W. E. B. Du Bois, Types of American Negroes, vol. 4, no. 363. Reproduced from the Daniel Murray Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC (Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-08762)
Race was on display at the 1901 World’s Fair at Buffalo, New York. In exhibits like Darkest Africa, Old Plantation, and The American Negro Exhibit, concessionaires presented larger-than-life, and conflicting, visions of blackness in America at the turn of the twentieth century. These exhibits left behind a fragmented archive of descriptions, newspaper articles, photographs, and film clips that sheds new light on a critical moment in the construction of modern black and American identity. AT BUFFALO, a landmark new musical, brings this archive to life—performing it virtually verbatim, making present an experience of the past when definitions of race were literally written, directed, choreographed, and performed in order to reconstruct the American character in the wake of national crisis.
At stake in the 1901 World’s Fair at Buffalo were not simply notions of black folk and their place in American society, but also notions of the American union and national identity at large. Traumatized by civil war only a few decades before, Americans tentatively settled into new models of coexistence - some more violent than others. Lynch mobs swarmed the South, where panics about the independence of black men and women plagued efforts at reconstruction and spawned new systems of segregation, institutionalizing racism for the century to come. The period was populated by figures like Sam Hose, a southern black worker accused of murder, who had been hunted, tortured, and executed in a horrific pageant of hate. Hose’s murder radicalized the likes of the famous African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, who turned his attention from academic study to political activism, ultimately founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) the following decade. In the North, political unrest sparked by the Panic of 1893 fueled the anarchist Emma Goldman to question the validity of the American republic as it entered the twentieth century, and inspired the radical Leon Czolgosz to enact what was perhaps the most spectacular exhibition at Buffalo - the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley.
Laughing Ben. Still shot captured from the film (1903)produced and directed by Arthur Marvin. American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., 16 mm. Reproduced courtesy of the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
Mary Talbert. From Twentieth Century Negro Literature, edited by D. W. Culp (1902).
AT BUFFALO’s rich soundscape comprises of historical music (e.g., John Philip Sousa melodies and problematic “coon songs”) and sounds spanning the black tradition: jazz, blues/folk, alternative, R&B, Afrobeat, and gospel. More than a mere dramatization of historical events, AT BUFFALO aims to wow and awe its audience just like the World’s Fair—through spectacle, innovation, interaction, and immersion.